I usually like it when an author experiments with style and content but because I love the seductive Irish lilt in the voice of Sebastian Barry’s characters, I was a little taken aback to find that his new novel is set in 19th century America and narrated by an Irish-American protagonist. There’s a slim connection with the Irish diaspora because Thomas McNulty came to America as a very young waif in the wake of the Potato Famine, and there are aspects of the way he and his fellow Irish-born are treated that attest to discrimination, but the lilt was gone. And the blurb made it clear that it was going to be about the Indian Wars and the Civil Wars. I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it.
However, my reservations were soon obliterated by the force of the story. Days without End soon became unputdownable, and yes, it was another four-o’clock-in-the-morning finish. Though it is not the main focus of the story I was utterly charmed by the way Barry was able to create a convincing gay relationship that went undetected, and (leaving aside the manner in which she was orphaned) I really liked the way Thomas and his companion John Cole became loving parents to an Indian girl. I now realise that, since gay families are common enough now in everyday life, it’s rather odd that I haven’t come across cross-dressing gay parents in fiction before. (Was the cross-dresser in Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker a parent? I can’t remember.)
What made the novel convincing was the savagery of the natural world :
We were four or five days from the frontier, we reckoned, just a bit of a ride now to Missouri and what we called home, when a storm came in over us. It was one of those bleak ice storms, everything it touched freezing, including the bits of our bodies showing. I never rode in anything so cold. We had nowhere to shelter and so were obliged to push on. After the first day the storm decided to go worse. It made the world into a perpetual night but when the real night came the temperature was maybe down to forty minus, we didn’t know exactly. Our blood said the bottom of the scale. It’s a queer wild feeling, that freezing. We laid neckerchiefs across our mouths and chins but after a while little good it did. Our gloves froze and soon our fingers were fixed fast around the reins like our hands had deceased and gone to their reward. Couldn’t feel them which was maybe just as well. The wind was all icy blades and might have shaved the beards and whiskers of the mean but that they had already froze to metal. We all went white, frosted from our crowns to our toes, and the black, the grey, and brown horses were all turned white now. The blankets of chill white rheum over everything was not warming. Picture us, two hundred men riding into that wind. (p.52)
The butchery of the world of war is equally vivid:
The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle. Throats have been slit but not entirely. There are gurgles and limbs held in agony and many have stomach wounds that presage God-awful deaths. Then the moon rises quietly and throws down her long fingers of nearly useless light. We trudge back to the breastworks and we get the details into action and the wounded are carried up into camp on the new ambulances. The dressing station has survived the Reb cavalry and the surgeon is inside with his saws and bandages. There are more bullet wounds than expected and though in all truth I heard no shells throughout our charge many have missing arms and arms hanging and legs. The helpers light the big oil lamps and the sawing begins. There’s no hospital yet further up the country so it’s now or never. Anything that can be bandaged is wrapped tightly. At the end of the surgeon’s able the pile of arms and legs grows. Like the offered wares of some filthy butcher. The fires have been stoked and the irons is pushed against the wounds and the screaming men are held down. We know in our hearts they can’t survive. The old rot will set in and though we may bump them back north they won’t see another Christmas. (p.148)
This is no whitewash of America’s brutal history. Thomas and John adopt Winona after they have taken part in the massacre of her tribe, and time and again, the soldiers sent to protect the pioneering settlers betray negotiations for peace.
Now it was inching into autumn and those treaty Indians had to make way in their villages for that old murderer called Famine. That filthy dark-hearted scrawny creature that wants the ransom of lives. Because government food that was promised was late or never coming. The major was looking vexed and tormented. His honest heart had made promises, that how he saw it. (p.59)
But when in desperation those Indians kill some stray emigrants, in a scene reminiscent of the frontier massacres here in Australia, that same major sends out a reprisal party to massacre to ‘put a stop to that.’
Barry doesn’t shy away from recognising the inherent racism of his characters. With not much in the way of alternative employment, McNulty and Cole sign up for the Civil War, and there’s a moment on the first day when McNulty acknowledges a painful truth: it was one thing to fight the Indians, because they were Other, and something different to fight men who were just the same as they were.
…there is another thing or other things we have no names for because it is not part of usual talk. It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest. (p.130)
However, McNulty grows in stature as the years go by. He comes to understand his culpability in dispossessing the indigenous people; and while his initial motivation in enlisting for the Civil War was nothing laudable, he is appalled to see the cavalier way that the Confederates treat the lives of Negroes, whether they are slaves or not.
In the Andersonville Prison of War camp, McNulty and Cole try to help. (My apologies for the offensive language, it’s the authentic language of the text.)
That boy’s hand is hanging by a thread, I say. Can’t you get someone to do for him? Surgeon won’t attend no nigger, says the guard. Private Kidd is his handle. Ain’t you got to tend a man so sick, says John Cole. I don’t know, says Private Kidd. He should a thought of that afore he thought to fight us. Goddamn niggers. There’s another dark-haired boy in the tent with us wants us to stop asking to help Bert Calhoun. Says they shoot anyone that helps the niggers. Says the niggers is put in with us to find out where we stand. Says he’s seen just yesterday a guard shoot a bluecoat sergeant because he asked just the same question John Cole did. I’m looking at John Cole now see how he is taking this. John Cole nods like a sage. Guess I understand, he says. (p.165)
There is so much to say about this powerful novel. Apart from the evocative language, it is rich in themes, exposing the personal dilemmas of a boy coming of age in an age of extreme violence. As you can see from the excerpts I’ve quoted, the novel is not for the faint-hearted, but I wouldn’t have missed reading it for anything.
Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: Days without End
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia
Available from Fishpond: Days Without End